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Contemporary art needs home of its own

Update: November, 13/2017 - 09:00
Splashes of colour: Installation by Hồng Việt Dũng. — Photo courtesy of Suzanne Letch/ Art Vietnam
Viet Nam News

Contemplating a museum for contemporary art in Hà Nội

by George Burchett

I first met Suzanne Lecht in December, 2006, in Hà Nội. Suzanne and her gallery, Art Vietnam, were my first introduction to contemporary Vietnamese art. Eleven years later, we are having a conversation about art in Việt Nam in the latest incarnation of Art Vietnam, now again relocated in her gallery/art salon/home, built in 1994 in a not very fashionable part of increasingly hectic Hà Nội.

The occasion is an exhibition she has organised simultaneously in two venues: the Việt Nam Feature Film Studios (VFS) and Art Vietnam. The title is Gang of Five: Chancing Modern.

The "Gang of Five" are artists Hồng Việt Dũng, Hà Trí Hiếu, Đặng Xuân Hòa, Trần Lương and Phạm Quang Vinh. They are considered to be among the founders of contemporary art in Việt Nam, having broken the mould of the, until then, prevailing socialist realist dogma. Suzanne tells me how she chanced upon the gang.

“It was the autumn of 1993, my husband had recently died and I needed to move on with my life. Sitting in my lovely garden in Tokyo, a friend came to visit me, carrying an article published by the Vietnam Investment Review in Hà Nội in August of 1993 that she had picked up on a recent trip to Việt Nam.

It was titled, “Art’s ‘Gang of Five’, the ones to watch, hold a third joint exhibition of art from the heart”. The article was written by Nora Taylor about five handsome young men creating works of art echoing the West, but uniquely Asian, I was immediately captured by the beauty and exoticism of it all. I picked up the phone and called my moving company in Tokyo and said, “Pack me up, I am moving to Hà Nội!”

The rest, as they say, is history. A very rich history, told in art, lovingly collected and exhibited in Việt Nam and around the world.

I ask Suzanne why The Gang Of Five exhibition is split between two venues.

“We chose two different locations to house the exhibition for very practical reasons. We needed a large venue to show the big new works of the five artists so when we heard of the historic Việt Nam Film Studios as a possible venue, we went to see it. It was perfect! It seemed as though destiny had met destiny. A large cavernous space full of memorabilia from the past, a venue with cultural significance and history, just like the Gang of Five.

"This allowed us to house the early works of the artists and the more fragile, archival materials in the Art Vietnam Salon gallery that would not be possible in the public venue. Also the salon atmosphere is attuned to the times in the late 80s-early 90s when the artists first showed their works from their homes to their friends and fellow artists. We could recreate history within the two different venues.”

About 700 people came to the opening of the exhibition at the Film Studios, a huge turnout for any exhibition by any standards. Suzanne tells me that about 100 people a day, mostly Vietnamese, visit the exhibition. Again, especially considering the unusual location, these are exceptional and impressive numbers.

This shows that there is great interest in contemporary art in Việt Nam. It also underlines the fact that in Hà Nội there are very few venues where the broad public can see non-commercial, experimental art. I can count such venues on the fingers of one hand.

At the exhibition’s opening, some people commented that they expected a "retrospective" show of the Gang of Five. To be honest, so did I. But looking at the vintage art and archival material exhibited (by appointment only) at Art Vietnam, I understand the impossibility of showing them at the Film Studios. They are simply too historically important and vulnerable to damage. I imagine that just insuring them for the duration of the show would be exorbitant. Then there are issues of security, climate control, lack of adequate space and exhibition equipment and so on.

Which brings our conversation to a sensitive topic, the lack of public space dedicated to contemporary art in Việt Nam.

Suzanne comments: "I feel it is urgent and imperative for the Government to provide a public exhibition space/museum to house contemporary art work. It must be a place where the public can not only see, but interact, be educated and exposed not only to Vietnamese art, but to international art, one of the most critical issues for the advancement of Việt Nam’s contemporary art. Art is the soul of a nation.

"Contemporary art exposes and expresses where a country lies, like a barometer.

"I fear that Vietnamese art will never make the world stage until we have a proper contemporary art museum with professional management and programming and a local collector base to support the art of Việt Nam today.

"Many countries have well-known philanthropists who passionately collect and support the arts. Now it is time for Việt Nam to do the same. One can understand that the basic needs of a people must be satisfied first, but Việt Nam is developing at an astounding rate and now attention must also be directed to the arts. Some private collections and collectors exist, but this is not mainstream and few Vietnamese have access to these channels.

"It is my fervent hope that soon Vietnamese companies and collectors will form an active force to build a contemporary art museum and stimulate art education and exposure available to everyone."

The Gang Of Five: Chancing Upon Modern exhibition at the Vietnam Film Studios, was curated by young Vietnamese curator Lê Thuận Uyên, who has a BA in Politics from the University of York. Like Suzanne Lecht, she too was captivated by critical and evocative artworks by local Vietnamese artists. Upon her return to Việt Nam in 2014, she started working in the artistic community, engaging as an art administrator, curator and archivist.

There are many others like Uyên – artists, curators, art historians – who need institutional support to be able to apply their talents, knowledge and passion to creating and promoting the arts in Việt Nam and connecting the arts to the broader community, locally and internationally.

It is not enough to just produce and exhibit art. Art must also be collected, preserved, documented and catalogued. Its authenticity must be guaranteed beyond doubt. This involves a huge amount of work that private galleries and collectors simply cannot afford. Only well-funded public institutions – and a few well-endowed private collections – are up to the task.

The new generation needs new art and to be educated about art so it can better understand and appreciate it.

By looking back at the recent past, the Gang of Five and Suzanne Lecht are also opening a conversation about the future. In fact, as a recent article in Việt Nam News (October 3, 2017) reports, the main venue for the Chancing Modern exhibition, the Việt Nam Feature Film Studios (established in 1953), is under threat. Again, a piece of Việt Nam’s cultural history may be lost to what some may call progress and development and others may denounce as cultural vandalism.

There are arguments for both. This conversation needs to continue, broaden and gain traction. Art needs space to grow and breathe, it is the heart and soul of a nation. A museum/gallery/space for contemporary art in Việt Nam would be an invaluable investment in the cultural, artistic, intellectual and spiritual future of the nation.

Hà Nội is a great city, fast growing and increasingly cosmopolitan. As a proud Hanoian, I would hope that Hà Nội will be the first city in Việt Nam to create a public institution dedicated to Vietnamese – and international – contemporary art. — VNS

Gang of Five: Installation with works by Trần Lương. — Photo courtesy of Suzanne Letch/ Art Vietnam
Modern twist: Installation with works by Đặng Xuân Hòa. — Photo courtesy of Suzanne Letch/ Art Vietnam
A home for art: Exhibition installation view. — Photo courtesy of Suzanne Letch/ Art Vietnam


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